Thomas Jones, traditionally known as Thomas Jones, Pencerrig, was a Welsh landscape artist of considerable talent and inventiveness. He is best known as an artist of the ordinary landscape, such as landscapes in and around his family home, or the brilliantly painted, blank whitewashed walls seen opposite his studio at Naples.
He was a man of considerable spirit who combined a deeply moral bent with a freethinking attitude to life. His life was a grand mixture of lost hopes with a realistic assessment of his own achievements. Jones was a popular and gifted artist, who charmed patrons but he lacked the ability to persevere with successful aspects of his art. Just at the point when many of his colleagues were needing to undertake crass engraving work, teaching or repetitive commissions, in 1787 Jones inherited his family estate and thus his final years were artistically his most creative.
Thomas Jones was born in the township of Trefonnen, his old family seat, in the parish of Llanfihangel Cefn-llys, just at the time when the wells at Llandrindod Hall were being popularised as health-giving venues for tired wealthy urban dwellers. His family moved from Trefonnen to the relatively secluded estate of Pencerrig, just a few miles from Builth Wells.
The Jones family were important Dissenters, having built and administered a small chapel in Trefonnen called Cae bach, which still exists today as a lively worshipping community. The young Thomas was taught by a Dissenting minister before enrolling at Christ's College, Brecon. After a time in Brecon, Jones matriculated in 1759 as a commoner in Jesus College, Oxford. His two years at the University confirmed his ambition to become an artist rather than a churchman or scholar.
He was fortunate that his father recognised his talent and interest in art. That support was crucial for his early development, and for his career in London.
In 1761, Jones returned to Wales with his father, where an old family friend, Charles Powell of Castle Madoc, encouraged him to enrol in the exciting and innovative drawing school organised by William Shipley. By November 1761, Jones was enrolled as a student at the school, making rapid progress.
He was apprenticed to the Welsh artist, Richard Wilson in March 1763, and was shortly joined by Joseph Faringdon. In later life both men kept detailed diaries and their manuscripts are today probably the most important artists' writings of the eighteenth century.
The studio of Richard Wilson, at Covent Garden, was an excellent environment to learn the very best practices of the day. Wilson set Jones to copy his chalk drawings, which he had undertaken in Italy between 1750 and 1757. Later in his studies with Wilson, Jones learnt to copy his master and, importantly, gained extensive knowledge of the great man's technique.
Jones left Wilson's care in 1765 and was elected a fellow of the Society of Artists in the following year. His career rapidly accelerated with the award of the first premium for landscape at the Society of Artists' annual exhibition in May. This accolade was affirmation that his fellow artists recognised a new talent had appeared on the London scene; he had the prospect of a glittering future.
Jones was a gregarious socialite who could have happily enjoyed the company of a wide variety of people. There is a large amount of information in the Memoirs on these aspects of his character and life. By the late 1760s he was establishing himself as a fashionable, though slightly old-fashioned, painter of country house portraits and Italianate landscapes.
Jones based his practice on a London residence, moving out to the country on commissions or visits. His most significant Welsh visit of his career was in 1768, when he took Sir Joshua Reynolds' chief studio assistant, Giuseppe Marchi, to mid Wales. Here Marchi painted the series of Jones family portraits and Jones worked, presumably in oil, on the landscape sketches, for which he has become famous.
The Society of Artists elected Jones as a Fellow in 1772; this honour confirmed that his colleagues believed he had reached a high standard in his chosen subject and was ready to be considered an artist in his own right.
In 1773, Thomas Jones painted The Bard. When exhibited at the Society of Artists in May 1774, it was acclaimed by a reviewer as a 'most capital piece'. Jones had demonstrated his competence to paint in the Grand manner, somewhat like his master, but with his own creative vision of thirteenth century Wales. Shortly afterwards he began his major print project, the Six Views in South Wales and within a year had left for Italy.
His Memoirs provide an extensive commentary on his Italian period, which began in October 1776 and continued until November 1783. The Bay of Naples is a typical example of his style at this time, a clear line, highly coloured with an emphasis upon the formal considerations of the landscape. On his return to London, now with a wife and two children, Jones attempted to revive his practice. Unfortunately he received few commissions and the promise of help from the influential Sir William Hamilton did not materialise.
It would seem that Jones and his family lived well despite the lack of commissions and sales. He notes in his Memoirs that 'I took a little, neat house in London Street Tottenham Court Road, where I lived very contentedly on the income of a small landed estate'.
His Welsh connections may have led Thomas Johnes of Hafod to commission Jones to produce views of Hafod in 1786. The only surviving drawings for that visit are found within the pages of the Hafod Sketchbook.
By the Spring of 1787 his elder brother had died and in 1789 Thomas Jones moved back to Wales to manage the family estate and become an important member of Radnorshire society. He graphically describes in his Memoirs how he saw Pencerrig as 'domestic retirement' where he painted merely for his own pleasure.
The majority of his final watercolours remained with his family until the fairly recent sales of 1954, 1961 and the bequest of works to NLW, NMGW and Llandrindod Museum from the estate of Mrs Jane Evan-Thomas.
Thomas Jones spent his last years consolidating his estate by planting trees, experimenting with crops, assisting his staff and working for the community as High Sheriff. He died on 29 April 1803 and was buried in the family vault at Cae bach chapel, Llandrindod Wells.